Meet the Neighbors: Canids at UW-Madison

Red fox sighting at UW Campus. Photo by E. Arti Wulandari.

By Jeff Schneider, Lakeshore Nature Preserve Invasive Species Specialist

Visitors can easily appreciate the variety of insects, birds and small animals that can be seen in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. But there are other residents of the preserve that are much harder to spot. If you look closely around dawn or dusk, you might catch a glimpse of the red foxes or coyotes that call the preserve home.

Coyote at UW Arboretum. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch.
Coyote at UW Arboretum. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch.

Red foxes and coyotes are canids (members of the same animal family as dogs). Coyotes can be mistaken for a medium-sized brown-gray dog from a distance, while foxes are smaller and have a distinctive reddish color. They both are mostly nocturnal when in cities to avoid humans, and prefer to eat small mammals such as mice, squirrels, and rabbits. Fox and coyotes are increasingly seen in suburban areas and even downtown—several foxes have been photographed at the Capitol!

How are these wild animals adapting to life in cities? Since 2014, UW Madison professor David Drake has been leading the effort to answer that question through his UW Urban Canid Project. Drake and his assistants use radio collars to track the coyotes and foxes found at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve and the UW Arboretum, and have developed a great understanding of their habitat, diets, and activity patterns. It turns out human developments increase the population of small mammals like mice, which in turn support more predators like foxes and coyotes. So if you’d like to see fewer mice and rabbits around Madison, these urban canids are your friends!

Some people fear that urban canids could be dangerous to people. Although keeping your distance is still recommended, foxes and coyote are not considered a safety risk, and will almost always run away from humans. Avoid feeding them and enjoy these mysterious neighbors from afar.

Have you seen a fox or coyote in Madison? The UW Urban Canid project relies on reports from people like you to aid their study! To report a sighting or learn more about the project, visit